Setting trends to define generations and creating icons that will be celebrated and placed on pedestals for years to come, fashion is so much more than which pair of Kurt Geiger shoes compliments the dress of the season and establishing the latest hemlines. The fashion world may never be the leading news headlines or top of David Cameron’s priority list, yet it is a fair representation of social issues, and clothing, models and designers distinctly reflect current social stances and opinions.
Discovered in 1986 aged just fifteen, it seems doubtful that the young British Jamaican, Naomi Campbell realised quite what a significant role she would play in denying racial stereotypes of black models and paving the way for many to follow in her stilettoed footsteps, demonstrating a beautiful and self-assured image of a black woman and becoming an influential role model. Hailed by Nelson Mandela as his honorary granddaughter, Naomi first graced the front cover of British Vogue in 1987 and, following on from this became the first black model to appear on the front cover of American Vogue’s prestigious September issue in 1989. Naomi proceeded to be classed as one of the world’s supermodels and was used by many prominent designers, including Gianni Versace and Vivienne Westwood and it was because of this fame that a figure of an assertive black woman, looking amazing in her clothes was publicised worldwide. Not only was this crucial in changing many peoples’ attitudes on race but also, Naomi was able to utilise her social status to become outspoken about racial issues facing the fashion world.
Just as art examines our ideas on what is considered normal and acceptable, fashion also constantly plays with this notion and changes the rules. Thanks to Naomi Campbell, we now no longer question a black model, yet possibly the latest social issue to come into focus, and the next area the fashion world wants to conquer, is that of transgender and gender boundaries.
When the stunning nineteen year old, Andrej Pejic, walked down the womenswear catwalk for John-Paul Gaultier in Paris in January, it seemed inconceivable that he was in fact male, until that is, he was seen walking for Gaultier’s menswear collection too. With his long blonde hair, striking cheekbones and slim figure, Pejic epitomises androgyny. This is a term that fashion designers love to play with anyway; often mixing soft or floral fabrics with masculine tailoring in many of their collections, and so using a model whose gender is ambiguous seems to be just a brave extension of this.
Two more models fuelling controversy in the fashion world and playing with the stereotypical gender rules are Dutch born, Valentijn de Hingh, who had gender reassignment at the age of seventeen, and Lea T, a beautiful Brazilian, also a transsexual. To look at Valentijn and Lea it is completely unapparent that these two women have undergone any sort of physical change, and they appear to have been fully integrated into the world of the high fashion elite. Again, it is the designers who are taking a bold leap and using models as a comment on issues at the forefront of society, demonstrating an open and accepting attitude and pushing transsexuals into the limelight so that they can be viewed as iconic role models.
Fashion is a hugely influential sphere and so by exploiting issues of identity in order to create challenging statements, these topics become starkly brought to life, where they may have otherwise remained hidden or unspoken of. As well as transsexual models, a path is being made for Asian supermodels of the future, who, as yet are marginally unrepresented. Perhaps we should all turn to the fashion world for inspiration, as they dare to be different and are not afraid to speak out, in turn creating a more accepting culture.